Advice for proto Alpinists
May 2, 2016
Hope it’s ok to contact you on this!
I’m emailing your for some advice as I am heading to the French alps at the end of August + start of September for two weeks. I have been reading up various articles with different advice about how to approach your first alpine trip.
A web article that really stood out to me was one you wrote way back in 2009 for UKC about keeping up your psyche. It’s quite an old article and I can’t remember where I found it. ( I think I was googling how to train for the alps)
The alps are pretty big, your UKC post said it would be wise to hire a guide for a couple of days. I think I need to fill gaps in my winter mountaineering/climbing knowledge that i’m missing. The obvious would be glacier travel + crevasse rescue. It would also be good to spend a day looking at how to read routes and practice moving together but all in all learn from the guides mistakes as you state in the article. I don’t suppose you could please recommend a guide that won’t just drag me to the top! Also maybe one that is pretty reasonably priced?
I would also like to know from your perspective what you think Scottish winter climbing grades translate to alpine grades. I have just finished my first Scottish winter climbing season this year and was climbing around III - V. If i’m honest I found 3: easy, four: medium and five: hard, this was all leading and I got most of the crux pitches (I always end up being the one to do the bold pitches and go up flying by the seat of my pants ) So bearing this in mind what alpine grades do you think would be appropriate for me to have a go at and at what mountain size?
From the trips I have had round Scotland so far I have enjoyed my time on the Ben the most. The iced up gullies are possibly the best lines I have ever climbed. Bearing this in mind where would you say would have styles of climbing like this in the alps with more ice than mixed? Someone fairly experienced recommend the Aiguille Du Midi as a starting point, am I right in saying I would also be able to find partners who wanted to climb similar stuff in that area?
I cant think of any other questions but if you feel like you could give any other of alpine climbing advice please say!
First off the most important thing to do is to tap into experience, be that a guide or someone who knows the score. This means both watching everything they do, plus them teaching you what’s important or maybe missed, why they do X and not Y. Some people love to teach, while others just want to climb, and this applies to guides just as much as mates. Ask a guide to climb Mont Blanc and they’ll just focus on getting your ass up and down the mountain, that same if you go the North Face of the Dru with a mate, who’s not going to want to teach you how to climb in crampons on verglassed pitches while he’s doing so. So in both situations, you need either just suck what you can from the situation (ask questions all the time, be a pain in the arse as what may seem obvious to a guide, like carrying alpine coils around his body, not on his back, may not be obvious to you). I’m someone who loves to teach people, as people climb better when they know better systems, such as running your ropes through a quickdraw on the belay when bringing up a second (if you’re not using a guide plate), or clipping into two-bolt belays with a bunny ears figure of eight. The more you teach the more people want to learn, and everyone can teach someone something, no one the master or the pupil really.
Getting an experienced partner is not easy, and if you do they’ll probably just want you as belay fodder, so suck up what you can. With a guide you should specify that you want to learn the maximum possible from your time together, and I would opt for a few days and say you want to learn the following:
- Route Choice
- Conditions and timing
- Kit selection including what rack to take
- Approach climb
- Food and fuel
- Emergency planning (kit and rescue, who to contact, how, and letting people know where you are)
- Approaching (what to wear, timings)
- Glaciers (moving on, hazards, but not really rescue, see below)
- Moving in snow
- Bivys (kit and how to do it well)
- The alpine climbing landscape (bergsrunds, rock and ice)
- Alpine climbing dangers (rock and ice fall, fixed gear, loose rock, changing conditions)
- Moving together
- A climbing bivy
- Getting down again
- Assessing what you need to do better next time
Most guides should be able to come up with a three or four-day itinerary where you could achieve all this, but you’d be better dealing with a UK guide who can be arse doing something out of the ordinary. There are tons of great guides out there (not just UK ones, but a UK one will understand where you’re coming from etc). Some guides can be a bit half-assed and just want to go home at night and fobbed you off with a day of sucking eggs (crevasse rescue, dragging you up an easy climb), so make sure you really spell out what you want to do, that you’re keen, fit and demanding (and want to have a good time). If you get on then consider asking them to just guide you up something harder so you can get a sense of what harder climbing will be like. As for recommendations of guides, there are tons of them but as a starter, I’d check out people like John Bracey, Rich Cross, Dougal Tavener, Matt Dickinson or Al Powel (as I say I know a lot of great guides… so sorry if I missed you out!). Quite a few of these guides also work in Scotland so having a day or two with them in Scotland beforehand would be good (you can check them out), plus you can also get some good skills from a UK instructor (like Calum Muskett or Libby Peter in North Wales) who could take you out and teach you some alpine rock skills like moving together, rock bivvys etc (some non-alpine UK guides have far more experience than Alpine guides but lack the paperwork : ).
As for finding a non-guide partner (ideally you’d be best to go with a 2:1 guiding ration to keep the cost down, plus you’d both be learning), you can pick up partners in most climbing hubs, but just beware of who you’re tying yourself with, and don’t head off to do the Croz with some no-name you met in the showers. A rule of thumb worth remembering is that the better someone seems, who tells you all they’ve done, the worse they often are (be wary of those that talk a lot about what they’ve done), while the quiet climber can often be very good indeed. Basically, some climbers feel they need to establish their position in a group by spraying, while those with no need will just keep a lower profile (very common in Uni groups). If you think someone will work as a partner go cragging first and see if they both have the fitness, psych and skills to be safe in the mountains, then try something long but not too committing. Hang out and see if you get on, as well you just like each other is also crucial because an easy climb that’s fun is better than a hard climb that’s a fucking nightmare. Beyond climbing campsites then UKC is also somewhere you could find someone.
One other thing to do is to build up your soft skills as much as you can before hand, reading books, finding articles online (like this site), and asking questions on forums like UKC or Supertopo. Try and practice as many skills as you can at home, down the wall or at the crag. This way you can nail the stuff a guide would teach you that’s really a waste of a day. This includes:
- Crevasse Rescue
- Moving together (using a tibloc/micro traxion)
- Ascending ropes (prusik and tibloc/traxion/belay device/shoe laces)
- French Free (A0 climbing, pulling on draws, getting tension etc)
- Bivys (spent a night out on a route)
- Climbing at night
- Self rescue
For many of these skills you don’t need anything but space, a park as good as glacier to set up a hauling system (set it up off a tree and get your partner to try and resist being pulled by you). When training doesn’t just go by the book but throw hurdles in your way. I once had breakfast with a guy in the SAS who spent months practising entry into rooms (blasting in a room after a stun grenade and killing all the baddies). One day lining up to enter a room the door, a gust of wind just blew the door open, and they all stood there unsure what to do (they’d never trained for a door just opening by itself!). So when doing crevasse rescue learn it with all the kit first (Traxion and Tiblocs and prusiks and slings), then take away kit until all you have is your belay device, a prusik and some krabs. Climbing drills are a great way to develop a better understanding of both how to do things, but also how to think yourself out of problems.
As for comparing Scotland to the Alps, well speed is much more important in the alps, and you may take as long on a 1000 metre race in the alps as you could on a route in the Northern Corries, so not need to adjust your grade accordingly. If it takes you an hour to pitch the first pitch of the Walker Spur when you should be moving together, then you’re not ready, and very often alpine climbing is more like soloing, with a mistake being fatal for both climbers (the skill is often in having some safety back up). Fitness and keeping your gear light, timing (starting at 3 am, not 9 am), understanding conditions in relation to speed and safety (snow conditions at 8 am compared to 3 pm) are also more important and avoiding the crowds (people are DANGEROUS). Think about the Frendo Spur, it’s 1200 metres high, a mix of easy rock (up to VS), and moderate snow and ice. What’s the longest route you’ve done in the UK? Maybe 200 metres? Easy ice sounds easy, but it’s not when it’s rotten or bullet hard with a 1000 metre drop below you and your arse is hanging out with thirst and the altitude. On the flip side, an Alpine hardman may well come unstuck on the Ben, not enough gear or clothes, unable to navigate in a whiteout, intimidated by the conditions. So yes having a Scottish climbing experience is great, but still take it easy, as it’s for you to decide what is what for yourself, not for me or anyone else to tell you.
So take it easy and never forget Edward Whymper words, as good today as they were over a hundred years ago:
“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end.”